Today’s members of the U.S. Armed Forces confront death and mortality on a daily basis, experiencing intense emotional reactions that cause many to seek spiritual counseling and support. Military chaplains offer this type of counseling, counseling that affects a warrior’s soul regardless of faith – or lack thereof.
When it comes to life and death, or simply the ravages of war on the human spirit, chaplains listen and help service members, some grappling with issues of war’s morality, some unable to cope with an injury or death of a friend. Some warriors are away from home for the first time, others are concerned about their families back home, or have questions regarding faith and war.
A chaplain’s religious belief, or denomination, doesn’t – and shouldn’t – affect how a military chaplain supports the military’s men and women – and their families, according to Norris Burkes, an Air National Guard chaplain. Except, of course, if the service member happens to be of the same faith as the chaplain.
Even those who are atheist or agnostic have a spiritual side, whether it’s the connection to family, or the beach, or whatever gives them joy and comfort, Burkes said.
Serving at the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, Iraq for three months in 2009, Burkes said he did whatever he needed to do that was important to the injured or dying individual.
“I’ve put garlic under the bed, turned the bed in the right direction, put a healing blanket on the bed, taken off my shoes, burned incense and read from the Koran,” Burkes said.
That’s not to say that I became a Muslim because I read from the Koran, said Burkes, also a Baptist minister from Elk Grove, Calif. He said that chaplains stay true to their own particular religious beliefs, but must honor others’ beliefs in order to support them.
“The main point is that you’re not there to convert, but to provide for whatever faith is there,” Burkes said.
If the individual doesn’t have a formal denomination, or is an atheist or agnostic, the chaplains job often turns more into the role of counselor, Burkes said.
The military provides intensive training for chaplain candidates, teaching them how to maintain a balance between their own religious convictions, and providing appropriate spiritual guidance that respects the Constitutionally mandated free exercise of religion.
Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own chaplain candidacy training program that individuals enter before becoming commissioned as a chaplain. For example, the army has a 12-week training course, the navy a 7-week course, and the Air Force Reserve Command spreads its training program over two summers.
In an effort to align the military’s chaplaincy programs across all branches of the military, the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center, the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, and the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Service Institute are all located in Fort Jackson, S.C.
Before getting accepted and entering one of the military’s chaplaincy programs, all candidates must first meet certain requirements as established by U.S. Department of Defense. These requirements include an endorsement by the individual’s ecclesiastical or religious denomination, and a graduate degree that includes not less than 36 hours in theological/ministry and related studies, consistent with the respective religious tradition of the applicant.
Deployed warriors who specifically request the guidance of a chaplain of a specific faith, such as a Catholic priest, rabbi, minister of a Protestant religion, or an imam, are only able to meet with a specified chaplain if one is available. The military recruits chaplains from many religions and faith backgrounds, but with two ongoing wars over the last eight years, a serious shortage of chaplains has left many religions underrepresented.
Catholic chaplains are in the shortest supply, reflecting the nationwide priest shortage. According to CatholicMil.org, a website for chaplains and military personnel, only 300 priests are currently administering to 375,000 Catholics out of 1.2 million active-duty service members. When 800,000 Catholic family members and dependents are added to the total number of Catholics needing a chaplain, the number grows considerably.
Rabbis and imams are also in short supply. According to the Army.Mil website, there are only seven active duty rabbis in the army, and only about 12 imams spread across all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
That means warriors in these religions often miss important holy day observances. For instance, of the three to four thousand Jews spread throughout the military, the high holy days of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, and Passover are often observed in isolation without services.
When chaplains are available in war zones, they often travel to units on holy days or religious holidays to conduct services.
These services are one example of chaplains practicing their particular faith, but in Protestant religions, that also has limits, Burkes said.
For example, he conducted Protestant church services each Sunday in the chapel at the Iraqi hospital, preaching as he would preach in his Baptist church back home. Because these services are available for all Protestant faiths, or anyone else who wants to attend, talking about the very specific, particular tenets of a religion is not permitted. So, for example, a Mormon preacher could not read from The Book of Mormon during a Sunday service at the chapel.
As an active duty chaplain for eight years before entering the Air National Guard, Burkes said he was a chaplain at several U.S. Air Force bases. During these appointments, his job paralleled the job of any minister at any church. It involved running Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, maintaining a choir, and preaching.
Between his years in active duty and years in the Guard, Burkes has over 23 years of experience as military chaplain. He said his deployment to Iraq changed him as he saw many young warriors leave without limbs.
“Seeing the sacrifice people are making for this war makes you think that more people need to be involved in sharing with them their experience,” he said.
Each branch of the military is actively recruiting chaplains. Many also offer special signing bonuses, some consisting of scholarships and tuition assistance for divinity school students, or help with paying back student loans.
If you are interested in becoming a spiritual counselor to those serving the country through the U.S. Armed Forces, request information from schools offering degrees that prepare individuals for a faith-based career.